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Monday, September 12, 2016

September 12, 2016: MusicalStudying: The Black Crook

[September 12th marks the 150th anniversary of the first performance of The Black Crook, generally considered the first stage musical (although opinions vary). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy both Crook and other exemplary stage musicals—and will ask you to share your solos and choruses for a crowd-pleasing weekend post that’s sure to garner a standing O!]
On two debates surrounding the historic musical, and one particularly clear legacy.
As with any text deemed the “first” of its kind, there are significant debates among scholars and theater historians on the question of whether The Black Crook (which opened at New York’s famous Niblo’s Garden on September 12, 1866) was indeed the first “book musical.” Numerous prior stage productions had included songs and dances, as illustrated by the popular J.N. Barker musical melodrama The Indian Princess (1809) and the even more popular, longstanding and evolving genre of the “[Uncle] Tom Show.” Moreover, many of Crook’s musical numbers were adaptations of existing songs, with only a few newly written for this production. Yet at the same time, Crook was apparently the first stage production in which such musical numbers were performed by the actors themselves and interspersed around and throughout the dialogue sections of the play, both attributes closely associated with the stage musical as it has existed for these subsequent 150 years. So while, as always, the question of “first” will likely remain in dispute, Crook unquestionably represented an important theatrical innovation.
An important and very controversial one, that is. The musical featured a scantily-clad female chorus who performed a series of bawdy dances, leading the New York Herald to note, in a scathing review, that there may have been “in Sodom and Gomorrah such a theatre and spectacle on the Broadway of those doomed cities.” Soon after the prominent New York minister Reverend Charles Smythe took up the refrain in a public lecture, attacking the musical and specifically “the immodest dress of the girls, … allowing the form of the figure to be discernible.” These public condemnations only increased interest in the musical, of course, and theater and burlesque historian Robert Allen has so far as to argue that much of this negative press might have comprised a “covert advertising ploy on behalf of the theatre management.” As Shakespeare and many others could attest, attacks on the morals of the theatre were nothing new—but both the era’s rise of newspapers and mass media and the boundary-pushing nature of the evolving genre known as the burlesque musical lent Crook and its controversial content and contexts a new and significant prominence.
All those factors combined to make Crook a huge hit, and one that (along with The Black Domino, a self-proclaimed “musical comedy” that had opened earlier in 1866 to a briefer but still prominent run) spawned a wealth of stage musicals in the years that followed. Niblo’s Garden alone ran two more musicals, The White Fawn and Barbe-Bleue, as soon as Crook closed its initial, record-breaking 474-performance run in 1868. But to my mind, Crook’s most overt legacy is in the ways it uses and adapts prior cultural texts, including both Goethe’s Faust (among other European Gothic texts and folk legends) and existing popular songs and music. Many of the hugely prominent musicals on which this week’s series will focus have offered similar adaptations of existing material, from West Side Story’s use of Romeo and Juliet to Rent’s revision of La Bohéme. Indeed, while as I noted above some historians have argued that its dearth of original material makes Crook less of a contender for the title of first musical, the genre’s history suggests precisely the opposite—that in this way among others The Black Crook at the very least helped originate what the stage musical remains 150 years later.
Next musical tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other musicals you’d highlight and analyze?

PPS. Updating the hyperlink to the New York Library Guide!

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